This sermon opened a quick series that kicked off our fall 2011 ministry. The immediate background (which I explain in the sermon's introduction) was a slogan we had been bandying about for a few months: "You Are So Welcome." That slogan had popped into my head one day in late spring when a few of our staff were trying to coin a catchphrase for a new church sign. The suggestions to that point used language which I felt only Christians fully understood or appreciated—"Come Be Transformed by Jesus' Grace"; "A Place Where Human Brokenness Meets God's Holiness." That sort of thing. I wanted something with more breadth, greater reach, something that spoke directly and plainly to the heart of anyone happening by.
You are so welcome, I said.
The word "so" clinches it. That tiny word packs massive punch. So injects heartiness into the mix. It declares our welcome with Greek gusto, with loudness, with arms flung wide. It announces a bounty of hospitality that is no respecter of persons. I imagined the First Nations people who daily walk past our church, back and forth between their reservation and the town. I imagined the well-heeled people who live up and behind our church, who pass by our campus all through the day in their shiny new cars and SUVs. I imagined the busloads of teens that, morning and afternoon, travel the road in front of our church on their way to and from school.
I wanted that man, that woman, that teen, that child to know that, at New Life, they were so welcome.
But after the slogan started appearing, not just on our sign, but everywhere around the church—bulletins, letterheads, big screen announcements, web site—I realized how flimsy it sounded. And I also realized that we had to make good on it—that when the single mother with unruly kids, when the gang member embroidered with tattoos, when the crack junkie jittery with nerves, when the shy teenager with a rash of acne, when the homeless drifter with a sour smell, when the rich man with an empty heart—when each and all walked through the door (and each and all were already in our midst), they had to feel so welcome.
All of us had to taste that welcome, and then we had to learn to extend it.
And so I began to devise ways to backfill the slogan, to give it theological ballast. I wanted us to see it and long for it and live it. The initial backfill I came up with was a 3-sermon series called You Are So Welcome: Living a Life of Hospitality, Generosity, and Thankfulness. Each sermon would unpack one of those three "kingdom postures."
"Greetings!" is the first of the three sermons, introducing the series and exploring the theme of hospitality. My overarching purpose in this sermon was to show how hospitality is a picture of God's character. So the heart of the sermon is portraying the wideness and deepness of God's hospitality (and contrasting that with the narrowness and shallowness of our versions of it). When I said, "Western hospitality is inviting friends over for a few hours; biblical hospitality is persuading strangers to stay one more night; divine hospitality is pursuing enemies, at great personal cost, to turn them into sons and daughters and to welcome them in your house and at your table forever"—it was then, I think, the penny dropped for many in the congregation.
But how do we imitate that? I needed to move the sermon from sky-high ideal to earthy next steps. So I latched onto the Greek word aspazomai, used repeatedly in the New Testament and translated "Greetings." It conveys more than a conventional salutation—it is an enthusiastic, heartfelt, take-the-first-step seeking out and drawing in of the Other. It is the biblical equivalent to "You are so welcome!"
To try to convey the theological substance of the word aspazomai, and to inject some humor into the sermon, I told the story of becoming a motorcyclist and learning the "secret protocols" of bikers—an oh-so-cool gesture to acknowledge our special and sacred status when passing by each other. Though there are slight variations on the gesture, the classic one is to lower your left (non-throttle) hand and hold out two fingers (the index and the middle one, either splayed in an upside-down V or held together) as you pass each other on the road. You never look at the other biker. You look straight ahead, stone-faced.
And never, ever wave. Don't even think about it.
I was initially so thrilled to be a biker, to be included in the elite guild, that I waved—actually raised my arm and waved—at every biker (even scooter-riders) I passed. I looked at them, nodding bobble-headedly, smiling like a pumpkin. It shocked the scooter-riders—considered persona non grata in the biking world—and it clearly filled the Harley guys with contempt.
In time, I got my groove. I became ultra-cool. I stopped waving. I stopped, really, greeting.
That story sets up the punch line: aspazomai is a kingdom gesture of eagerly waving, smiling, nodding to everyone, even scooter-riders.
It is God saying through us, You are so welcome!
Go and do likewise.
A couple of months ago there was a conversation going on in the offices of our church. We were putting up a new sign out by the road. The other one was pretty dilapidated, deteriorated, and we needed to freshen it up. And so we started talking, Could we put a little slogan on the bottom of the sign? The conversation was about what the slogan should be. We wanted it to be as succinct as possible. We wanted to distill the mission of our church. Let's try to give a picture of the transforming work of Christ in the life of anybody who follows him. So we came up with "We Welcome You" and "Transforming in the Name of Jesus" or something like that. As I was walking by, they asked if I would give an opinion about it all. Immediately a phrase popped into my head: "You Are So Welcome." It took a little convincing that it would be the appropriate slogan to use. In my mind, the person driving by probably isn't thinking, Where can I go and get my life transformed by Jesus? The person driving by—who may be thinking of ending their life or leaving their marriage or just feeling completely empty, broken, raw—wonders if there's a place where they could go that they would be welcomed. If we're doing our job, when they get in among us, the other thing will become obvious and will kick in.
I love the word so. You heard it in the John passage: "For God so loved the world …." It's just got that little bit of "umph" to it. You Are So Welcome. But it sounds a little fluffy. You see the slogan if you've paid any attention. It's in our bulletin now. It is out in the sign at the road. As we began to think about coming back for the fall, we thought it would be really good to put some theological ballast behind that little phase, "You Are So Welcome." We want to experience welcome ourselves, and we want to become ambassadors of that welcome as we come in. Whether we've been here for twenty-eight years, or even longer, or we just showed up today, we want to feel that we are honored here. It matters that we're here. This is home. And we want to experience welcome ourselves, and then we want to be ambassadors. We want to extend that to anyone who comes near here. You are so welcome.
Jesus reveals God's welcoming heart.
But the more critical thing is that this is God's heart. The God that we serve is a God that lives toward us like this. The God that pursues us, the God that embraces us, the God that sees us from a distance no matter what kind of shape we show up in, takes the initiative to greet us, to welcome us, and bring us in. The heart of our God is a heart of welcome. You are so welcome.
There is that little passage I read in 1 John: "No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us" (4:12). Now I want to take you to another John passage. It's in John's Gospel, right at the beginning of John 1, verses 17-18. John writes this: "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." And listen to this phrase: "No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known." This is John's logic. If you add up John 1 and 1 John 4, you get this: No one has ever seen God. It doesn't matter how many ranks of sinners there are, how holy a Christ seeker is, a God seeker. Nobody has ever seen God. But Jesus came and he made God known, and then he went up to heaven to stand at the right hand of God. So John in his letter says, "No one has ever seen God; but if we love, we make him known." We actually complete something in ourselves, something that's unfinished, something that's broken, something that's messed up—the deeper work of God, by his Spirit, completing his work of forming us in Christ through our loving, our opening of ourselves to the lavish love of God. We are made complete, and we actually make God known.
Now that word make known is fascinating. The word in Greek is exēge ceit satō. Exēgesatō. There is a technical word that anybody who's taken any Bible courses knows: Exegesis or exegete. It's transliterated out of the Greek. When you exegete a passage of Scripture, you do not impose your own interpretation on it. You work with the original language. You work with the thought world that it was written in. You research the context historically and culturally, and you dig down into that text to try to discover the original meaning. And when you've done that, you've exegeted the passage of Scripture. What John is saying is that Jesus exegetes the original purpose of God. Jesus reveals, he unfolds, he unpacks for us. He removes all interpretations that we might bring—our worldly interpretations, imposing the way we see things—and Jesus peels all of that back and gives us God in his full nature. And then John says that now you get to "exegete" God by loving. You see, the heart of God is "You are so welcome," and this radical, costly, extravagant welcome of God is extended to you and me. We experienced it. Jesus came, exegeting God. He came to reveal the heart of God, to reveal the radical, costly, extravagant welcome of God. God's like this, not like this. And now we get to exegete. We get to live out the welcome of God.
Now, you know that the religious people in Jesus' day absolutely hated Jesus and what he was doing in exegeting God in this way. They were trained in the law of Moses. John says in John 1 that "the law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." What the Pharisees, the teachers of the Law, misunderstood as they taught the Law is they thought the law was a revelation of the nature of God. They thought that by teaching the Law, practicing the Law, that they were exegeting God, showing the original nature, true purpose, real character of God. The Pharisees had taught and practiced that God was a nitpicker, God was a rule keeper, God was a stickler for the rules. In their mind that was the heartbeat of God. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Stop doing it! But Jesus comes along and exegetes God in a whole new way: God full of grace and truth.
And then to illustrate the point, he tells stories about what God is like. You know some of those stories. This God, who will turn over the furniture, will go scouring the hillsides to find whatever is lost. And then of course there's that great story of the Prodigal Son, a kid who does everything to forfeit the grace of God, who breaks all the rules. And when he shows up again and it's time for comeuppance—it's time for consequences, it's time for the boom to be lowered—he thinks, Maybe, maybe, maybe I can get a crust of bread and maybe, maybe, maybe he'll hire me as a day laborer. As he comes straggling home after having squandered—after having taken it in this most rude way—the wealth of the father, the father doesn't give him bread, he doesn't give him a day job; he gives him prime rib. What? You want bread with that? Fine. Good. Roasted potatoes. Fiddlers to dance to. He doesn't give him a day job; he restores him to the fullness of his sonship. And then he starts handing out his own stuff—his robe and signet ring and his sandals. You're so welcome.
Jesus was exegeting the true nature of our God. I love how Eugene Peterson captures in The Message the stories that Jesus tells about God's heart for lost things. In the beginning of Luke 15 he writes: "A lot of men and woman of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religious scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, 'He takes in sinners and eats meals with them treating them like old friends.'" But the heart of our God is this heart of radical, costly, extravagant welcome. You are so loved. You are so welcome.
Jesus wants us to show God's welcoming heart.
Jesus exegetes God and then he asks us, Would you exegete this for me? While I've gone to heaven to be at the right hand of the Father, will you somehow communicate to each other and to people out on the streets what God is like, that the very nature of God is "You're so welcome"? That's our job.
Now over the next few weeks, we're going to look at how we embody as Christ's followers that welcome of God. And what we're going to look at is three kingdom practices for people who are living this life of welcome. The three kingdom practices are hospitality, generosity, and thankfulness. I would go so far say that the shape of a kingdom Christ follower is to take seriously the biblical call to hospitality, generosity, and thankfulness, and then to receive all of the riches of heaven poured out on you. This is not mustering it up stuff. This is working out what he so ably works in you. That's something radiant. Taking seriously the biblical call to hospitality, generosity, and thankfulness exegetes God. It exegetes God for a humanity that wonders if he exists and whether he's who he says he is or we say he is.
So what I want to look at today very briefly is the life of hospitality. We have to do a little bit of a rethinking about hospitality, because in the West we use that word to mean this: Inviting someone I like for a brief visit. Three hours preferably. Don't come too early. Don't come too late. Don't stay. You can go early, but don't stay late. That's kind of western style hospitality: Inviting people we already like to come for a visit briefly. The Bible would know nothing of that form of hospitality. It's not a bad thing to have somebody over for dinner or something, but that's something else. Let's call it "having people over for dinner" and stop calling it hospitality. Martha Stewart is not the queen of this thing. She presides over the kingdom of non-hospitality, if you define "hospitality" biblically. You don't have to have your house in order. You don't have to cook the perfect meal, and so forth.
Here is biblical hospitality: Bedouin culture. You see it all throughout Genesis, and you see it in the New Testament. Biblical hospitality is persuading strangers to stay yet another night. I've seen it more in our First Nations people than among us whities. If you've got a house, if you've got a bed, and somebody needs it, then it's a given. It's persuading strangers to stay yet another night. You see this all throughout Genesis and all throughout the Old Testament. Meeting somebody for the first time at the well: Come over to our house. Well, I've got to go now. No, you can stay one more night. That is biblical hospitality.
Here is divine hospitality, here's God's hospitality: Pursuing enemies to win them at a costly love, willing to die for them in order to adopt them as sons and daughters of heaven, to come live in your house forever. That is hospitality. In fact, it's because of that that some theologians say the chief attribute of God, that the quality of God that most defines who God is, is hospitality—pursuing sinners, enemies, people who hate his guts, not to hurt them, not to punish them, but to die for them in order that they might become sons and daughters and that they might come live in his house forever. That is hospitality.
This morning, when I talked about this, Dave Hickman came up to me and said (I can't believe I didn't think of this) that the divine hospitality—certainly biblical hospitality approaching divine hospitality—is present in the one word where it really does retain some of its key and original sense: hospital. If I went up to the hospital today and walked into emergency room and came to the nurse and said, "Hi," she would say, "What's wrong?" "Nothing." "Really?" "Yeah, I'm feeling fantastic. I'm actually fifty-one but I feel like I'm twenty-two. I'm fantastic. Do I look good?" "Well, yeah. So why are you here?" "I'm not welcome?" Anyhow, she would send me home. Right? The more busted up you are at the hospital, the more priority you get. So you come in with an ingrown toenail, you're waiting in the emergency room for twelve hours. You are in a car accident and you're bleeding to death, you've got the surgeons on you right now. That's getting close to divine hospitality. The more busted up you are, the more attention you get. I like that. That's hospitable.
We may not be there yet, but can we do away with cheapening the word hospitality by calling what we normally do? We'll just say we're having somebody over for dinner or lunch or whatever and leave it at that. Let's make a promise to ourselves before God to move a little further toward the biblical version and to open ourselves to have God's heart, so that we may begin not just to persuade the stranger to stay one more night, but to pursue the enemy to become a son or a daughter or brother or sister. That's how we exegete our God.
There's a word in the New Testament that makes this very practical. It was a word I didn't really pay much attention to for a long, long time: aspasmŏs. It's a Greek noun; aspazŏmai is the verb. You don't need to know that. You need to know how it gets translated in the New Testament. The verb is "greet," and the noun is "greetings." Paul uses it in virtually all of his letters, and for the longest time I thought it was just some kind of standard letter convention, epistleatory convention. You're writing a letter. It's like Dear So-and-So and Yours Truly at the end. It was just a kind of a convention used mindlessly. But then the Letter of Romans tipped me off that something else was going on with this word.
Now as you probably know, when Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans, he had never visited there before. These were all people he had not met. So instead of doing what he normally does in a letter—trying to sort out some mess, or trying to get the people to think straight about some theological issue, or coming in to address some moral disaster that was going on—the Letter to the Romans is pure theology, and he's mostly intent on exegeting God. What is the heart of God? What is the nature of God? It's this God who lives like this. "While we were yet sinners and dead in our sins .…" God's running to welcome you, embrace you, call you home, make you a son and a daughter. And then at the very end of Romans, chapter 16, he basically loads up a Gatling gun. Do you know what that is? It's an old machine gun, a Gatling gun. And Paul does this: He starts peppering them with this word "greet" and "greeting," twenty-two times in chapter 16 of Romans. It's like gree-eee-eee-eee-eee-eee-t. Gree-eee-tings. Gree-eeting. I mean, it's just greet, greet, greet, greet, greet. And I thought, Okay, this is a book of almost pure theology where he's giving us the heart of God, and then twenty-two times Paul says greet this and greet that. Greet, greetings, greet, greet, greet. There must be something else going on here.
And so I went in and looked at the word, and sure enough there is. You see, when we say "greeting," we mean sort of like [gestures with hands held up but close together]. But what aspazŏmai means is this [gestures with hands held up and spread far apart to embrace someone]. I turned fifty last year and fulfilled a lifelong dream: I became a motorcycle rider. And right away I learned that there's a secret protocol of motorcycle riders. I didn't know this for fifty years. The secret protocols is to lower your left hand and hold out two fingers as you pass another biker on the road. But we don't look at one another. And this was thrilling to me. Thrilling! Like, I'm one of you. But what I didn't know was 1) it's a subtle gesture, and 2) there's a pecking order. So at the top of the food chain is the Harley. And he may or may not acknowledge your existence. It's his prerogative. Not even in the food chain is the scooter. This I didn't know. So I'm now one of the motorcycle riders and I just start noticing this thing going on. I'm like, cool. You could have Pee Wee Herman on a peddle bike and I'd give the protocol. In fact, I startled guys on scooters because they know that they don't even rate, and they'd almost drive off the road because they were startled by a kind of big hog. Anyhow, there's this secret protocol, and I was supremely uncool. I've got my groove now. Yesterday we went up, and my biker chick (that's my wife because she's into it too) we're with it now.
But here's why I tell you that. When Paul writes greetings, he writes to the surliest, burliest Harley guy and to the nerdiest scooter guy and everything in between, because that's the heart of God. The heart of God is this radical, costly, extravagant, and uncool but really redeeming love. A God that runs to prodigals and chases enemies and all that stuff doesn't make any sense to us. But if you've exegeted the heart of God right, that's what's there.
This is what I'm going to ask you to do, just as a practical thing from now on. Nobody's ever seen God. Jesus exegeted him, made the original nature of God, the true nature of God, known. And now he's called us to exegete him. And the heart of God is this heart of welcome, of hospitality, of "come on in."
Two things. First: This week, would you practice moving from North American hospitality toward biblical hospitality and have somebody into your home that you wouldn't normally have into your home, somebody that you're just going to get to know. That's how you're going to get to know them this week. You'll welcome them in, and don't set time limits on it. Just take a little step, a baby step on that one. Some of you are already doing that. Thank you. For some of you, maybe it's a stretch to invite somebody you do know. So do that. But take a step in that direction.
The second thing I'm asking is this: I'm recruiting you today to be an unofficial greeter, that you would be looking out for a person to invite. Either they've been here for a long time, or you've got a sense—because they're reading the bulletin boards—that they're brand new. They're not actually interested in the bulletin boards, they just don't know what to do with themselves. I'm recruiting you all to have this heart of hospitality. I'm one guy. I can only do so much. Rob is one guy. Shane is one guy. It doesn't matter. We're not brilliant at this stuff. Anyhow, many of you are. Let's all step into this. We want people to know New Life because they come here and feel so welcome. And in doing so, may we reveal something of the very nature of the God who welcomed you and me.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.